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Behind the Badge: Police Department confronts changes

The Fargo Police Department has grappled with many challenges in the past four years. Most notably, city commissioners hired a new police chief, one with new ideas who had never been a police chief before. But other changes arguably had greater i...

The Fargo Police Department has grappled with many challenges in the past four years.

Most notably, city commissioners hired a new police chief, one with new ideas who had never been a police chief before.

But other changes arguably had greater impact on the department.

After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, police departments around the country -- including Fargo's -- had to respond to new security threats.

A wave of Fargo officers hired right after the Vietnam War reached retirement age, causing a flight of experience and maturity from the department.


And police technology continues to rapidly change.

"The world has changed, and we had to change with it," said Deputy Chief Dave Rogness, who's been with the department for 29 years.

During his tenure, Fargo Police Chief Chris Magnus has steered the department with a public and controversial hand.

Resulting changes have included a younger, bigger crew of officers, a beefed-up bike patrol and new uniforms, squad cars and motorcycles.

The department's budget has increased by more than $2 million -- roughly 30 percent.

While Magnus has been a guiding force, he's quick to point to others in the department who have helped ease the transition.

"I don't know what I would do without Keith (Ternes) and Dave (Rogness)," the department's two deputy chiefs, Magnus said.

"They're really dedicated to this department."


Magnus has been front and center, pushing through controversial policies and redefining how the department operates.

Fargo police officers have grown much younger and newer to the profession over the past four years, Rogness said.

Of the department's 115 sworn employees, 43 have been hired since 1999 and about a dozen are filling new positions, he said.

Seventy percent of the department's ranking officials were promoted in the past four years, Magnus said.

"We would consider our department pretty young," said Lt. Jeff Williams, a Police Department veteran of 27 years.

"We don't have an awful lot of experience or maturity. We have to rely more on training," Rogness said.

"We have to go back to the basics."

One of the first things Magnus did when he became Fargo's top cop was restructure the department to make sure every officer was directly accountable to a supervisor.


Before Magnus, patrol duties were defined by the whims of individual officers, said Ternes, a lieutenant before Magnus promoted him Jan. 1, 2001.

For example, the SWAT team used to just leave a note on a deputy chief's desk when it responded to an incident, said John Sanderson, who was a Fargo police officer for 27 years before retiring in October.

When Magnus heard this, he said, "That's going to change, boys and girls,

"He has his finger on everything that goes on in that department," Sanderson said.

Officers were expected to keep Magnus in the loop at all times, Sanderson said.

"It took some time to adjust to that."

Magnus' personality greatly contrasted with that of his predecessor, Ron Raftevold, who spent 10 years as Fargo's police chief and largely remained out of public view.

Sanderson -- who was one of the dozen or so officers called to serve in the National Guard after Sept. 11 -- said he retired after being reassigned to night patrol duty.


At that point, the 51-year-old decided, "This is a young man's job."

He wasn't alone.

In the past two years, five officers retired -- mostly due to being tired of the job -- and one resigned, said Williams.

Three lieutenants have been replaced in the past four years and a deputy chief position was eliminated. The vacated spots were replaced and about 10 officers were added to the department, Williams said.

Magnus created a structure of about a dozen sergeants, each responsible for 10 to 13 officers. Each sergeant was responsible for monitoring how officers spend their on-duty time, as well as investigating citizen complaints against their officers.

To pay for additional officers and new programs, the department's budget increased from $6.4 million to$8.5 million in the past three years, Williams said.

Some accused Magnus of having a bias against older police officers.

"I'll admit I have a bias," Magnus said in July 2000. "My bias is against people who have never possessed or who have forgotten their work ethic."


Before, too many people were doing police work according to their priorities, Magnus said.

A young zealous officer would decide to ticket 50 or 60 people in a month for speeding or having expired license plate tabs, while an older, less-interested officer would turn in two or three tickets during the same period, Ternes said.

"It was bad," Magnus said.

The objective is to serve every neighborhood in the same way, Ternes said.

"Citizens expect their police department to focus on what they identify as community priorities -- not just what the police think is important," Magnus wrote in his 1999 application for the police chief position.

Some officers are very black and white, Magnus said. Many wanted to know how many tickets they had to issue for them to receive good evaluations.

When Magnus set a monthly ticket goal of 25, some officers and Fargo residents got upset. They called the ticket goal a quota, which set off a minor hysteria.

"This is not south Los Angeles," wrote Fargo's Ken Switzer in a September 2001 letter to The Forum. "Where we come from, the police are our friends and trusted members of the community. This quota is driving a wedge between us."


Another letter to the editor asserted: "Quotas simply are another mechanism for enhancing revenues and getting raises for department heads.""Traffic was one of the landmines I walked into," Magnus said.

Sometimes tough changes need to be made at the beginning, Magnus said. But it's important to have a network of supporters while making the changes, he said.

"I think I could have done better."

Pat Zavoral, Fargo's city administrator, said he heard from people on both sides of the issue. The silent majority approved of the police department's push for more ticketing.

"We took every step we could not to make it a quota," Magnus said. "We're as interested in the quality of tickets you write as the numbers."

"Where I came from, this was no big deal," he said.

Community policing

During Magnus' time as chief, patrol duties have included making small talk with store owners and swapping handshakes with students in high school parking lots.

Some ride bikes, others spend their days in a school office.

It's all part of community policing, in which citizens want and expect more than nightstick-toting, gun-equipped law enforcers.

This isn't a new philosophy for the Fargo Police Department.

The department started moving toward a community policing model in the mid to late 1980s, said Tom McDonald, a North Dakota State University sociologist and a member of the committee that chose Fargo's police chief.But the program needed a jumpstart, he said.

Fargo commissioners chose Magnus, in part, for his understanding of community policing, McDonald said.

"Increasingly, citizens look to the police to take a lead role in community problem-solving -- beyond just making the effort to prevent and solve crimes," Magnus wrote in his 1999 job application.

To help Magnus accomplish his goals, the city has paid his way to several national training programs. In June 2002, the city spent $9,200 to send Magnus to a seminar on "Senior executives in state and local government" at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government.

Rogness said the city has a history of generously funding police training.

The Lansing Police Department -- where Magnus worked as a captain before coming to Fargo -- heralds itself as a pioneer in community policing.

In recent years, the community-policing model has gained increased popularity nationwide. From 1997 to 1999, the number of police departments using the model nearly doubled -- from 34 percent to 64 percent of all local police departments, according to a 2001 study by the U.S. Justice Department's Bureau of Justice.

Rogness said he remembers suggesting a move toward a community policing model in the late 1980s.

"We took a break toward that transition when Magnus got here and went to elementary accountabilities," Rogness said.

It frustrated some of the older officers to move back to the basics for one to two years, but Rogness said he didn't think it has hurt the department.Some officers complained the changes were too much, too fast; that they had too many projects, Magnus said. Still, they seemed to take a lot of pride in their work, he said.

"'Community policing' isn't just a buzz word here," Magnus tells all potential police recruits in a handout. "This means you need to GET OUT OF THE PATROL CAR and talk to people -- even when you're not on dispatched calls."

In the current police department, officers are expected to make connections with schools, Ternes said.

Magnus reads to elementary school children once a week during the school year.

"One of the best ways to prevent crime is to get cops into schools early on," Magnus said.

The most important thing is relation-building, he said.

In his ideal world, Magnus said he would be able to ask store owners, "Do you know the officer on your beat?" and they would say "Yes."

Some officers like the community policing model. Others don't.

"Cops have kind of a military mindset and like to be in control of things," Sanderson said.

Some found it hard to spend time chatting with business owners or area residents, he said.But it's hard to strengthen ties with people when in "a plastic and metal cage called a patrol car," Sanderson said.

When people deal with police, they're either a victim, witness or suspect, he said.

Usually, "no one wants to see us," Sanderson said.

With closer community ties, people feel more comfortable with cops, he said.

Fargo is evolving from a small town to a medium-sized city, Magnus said. From 1990 to 2000, the population grew 22 percent, according to the U.S. Census.

The city's overall crime rate has remained relatively constant over the past four years, he said.

"It's low and it's stayed low," he said.

The challenge is maintaining the good things of a small town with lots of people living close together.

"We had a ways to go and still have a ways to go," Magnus said.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Lisa Schneider at (701) 241-5529

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